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Crash course

Patriots already learning they have hands full against physical Jaguars

Email|Print| Text size + By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / January 7, 2008

The perfect Patriots have a playoff opponent and it's as physical a foe as they've faced all season.

New England will host the Jacksonville Jaguars Saturday night at Gillette Stadium. The lone remaining wild-card entry in the AFC playoffs, the Jaguars were a 31-29 winner over the Pittsburgh Steelers Saturday night.

It will mark the fourth time the Patriots and Jaguars have met in the postseason, with New England holding a 2-1 advantage. The Patriots defeated the Jaguars, 28-3, in an AFC wild-card playoff matchup at Gillette two seasons ago.

The 16-0 Patriots, who will try to continue their pursuit of perfection in the postseason, should get the ice packs ready for Jacksonville because win or lose they'll come out with bumps and bruises.

The Jaguars finished the regular season ranked second in the NFL in rushing (149.4 yards per game) behind the terrific tailback tandem of Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew and ranked third in time of possession (32 minutes, 8 seconds). The Patriots were second, behind only Pittsburgh, at 32:31.

"Very physical team. Yes, they're very physical," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick last night. "Any team that runs the ball as well as they do and stops the run as well as they do [is]. They're able to do a real good job on the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball."

Belichick said his coaching staff spent the most time last week poring over film of the Jaguars because the Patriots already had played their other two possible opponents, beating Pittsburgh during the regular season and facing the Tennessee Titans during the exhibition season.

But it also could have been an indication of the team that concerned him the most. While the Patriots ended up 10th in the league in run defense, they have shown some fissures in their invincible armor against the run and Taylor (223 rushes for 1,202 yards and five touchdowns), Jones-Drew (167 rushes for 768 yards and nine TDs), and quarterback David Garrard, who set up Jacksonville's playoff win with a 32-yard designed run, are all running threats.

San Francisco 49ers great Jerry Rice, now an analyst for Sirius NFL Radio, went on record before the playoffs started that he thought the Jaguars were the toughest matchup for the Patriots.

"If anyone matches up pretty good, I would say it's going to be the Jacksonville Jaguars with Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew. No one else should give New England a problem," said Rice. "Indianapolis, if they had Marvin Harrison at his best, that's a whole different team. They're winning football games, but they're not the Colts of old.

"Jacksonville has the running game; they have a quarterback, David Garrard, who is playing well; they hit you in the mouth; they're physical and can play in bad conditions. If there is any team to watch out for it's Jacksonville."

While Garrard (9 of 21 for 140 yards and a touchdown with two interceptions) wasn't at his best throwing the ball against the Steelers Saturday night, he was one of the most efficient signal-callers in the league during the regular season, tossing just three interceptions against 18 touchdowns. He topped Patriots quarterback Tom Brady as the best third-down passer in the league, completing 71.6 percent of his passes and throwing nine touchdowns and no interceptions.

The Jaguars don't have a record-setting offense like the Patriots, but they're not incapable of putting points on the board. They averaged 25.7 points per game, sixth in the league.

"People that think of Jacksonville as a conservative, run-the-ball, tough-defense kind of team, they're way past that, way past it," said Belichick.

The Patriots have not faced Jacksonville this season, but that doesn't mean they're not familiar with Jack Del Rio's crew.

Last year, the Patriots went to Jacksonville in the penultimate game of the regular season and pulled out a 24-21 victory over a squad that was without Taylor, who sat out with a hamstring injury. Jones-Drew ran for 131 yards, including a 74-yard touchdown, on 19 carries. The game wasn't sealed until Jarvis Green forced a Garrard fumble that was recovered by Rodney Harrison with 1:46 to go.

Belichick said this Jacksonville squad is as different from that one as the one the Patriots beat in the playoffs in the 2005 season when Byron Leftwich was still the Jaguars quarterback.

"Yeah, I think they were a different team [from] when we played down there last year, starting with Fred Taylor," said the coach. "We didn't see him last year. That's not to take anything away from Jones-Drew. We had plenty of trouble with him, too, but when you got those two guys, [the] quarterback, receivers, offensive line. They're a solid team.

"I think their record speaks for itself. They're one of the least-penalized teams in the league. They don't make a lot of mistakes. They make you beat them. They do a good job."

Whether Jacksonville is good enough to hand the Patriots their first loss of the season and end it at the same time remains to be seen, but 16-0 is all for naught if New England can't tame the Jaguars.

"We're starting from scratch with Jacksonville," said Belichick. "It's irrelevant what our record was. It's a one-game season right now, and we just try to do our best to have a great week of preparation and be as well-prepared as we can possibly be going into this game and play and coach as well as we possibly can against, as I said, one of the best teams in the league."

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com.

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